Taraji P. Henson, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’

Family history part of preparation for performance

Before Taraji P. Henson went to work filming David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the actress says she took some time to visit with her family in North Carolina. It turned out to be a fortunate twist of fate for her preparations.

“My grandmother has eight children, including my mom,” Henson says. “There was a woman there to portray every age I was going to act in this film, so I just sat there and watched them all.”

In the film, Henson stars as Queenie, foster mother to Brad Pitt’s title character as he lives a life of adventure and spontaneity. Screenwriter Eric Roth says it was important for Queenie to represent home for Button and serve as an anchor for the piece as the film moves through decade after decade.

“I had no real particular image, but I know Taraji was probably more attractive than I imagined her to be,” Roth says, calling from Canada, where he’s taking some time to relax before the Oscar season frenzy. “She layered the thing and articulated the character better than I had written it. I thought the performance was pretty startling. The danger of the thing is going into some stereotypical character, and I thought she gave it a separateness and a dignity.”

Henson, who saw her cache rise a few years ago with a turn in “Hustle and Flow” and then “Talk to Me,” admits an awareness of those potential pitfalls. She says she didn’t want to portray Queenie as cliched or decrepit, but at the family gathering, she noticed her grandmother exercising her knee following recent knee-replacement surgery and worked that into her portrayal.

Henson chose Queenie’s arm as a point of physical focus and researched the aging process and how the spine shrinks, so she could develop variations on posture. She also added a dash of her grandmother’s “Don’t sweat the small stuff” credo for good measure.

“Queenie is that type of character,” Henson says. “She’s not a weak woman. She just goes with the hand she was dealt.”

As for working under Fincher’s tutelage, Henson says it was like finding a kindred spirit who mysteriously understood her process as a performer.

“For me it always starts with a trust for the director,” she explains. “I totally went into the project trusting him, and if you trust your director, it’s going to make you look that much more brilliant. Everything made sense. I even asked him if he acted before and he said never. He’s so well-rounded.”

Favorite film this year

“I haven’t been able to get out and see anything this year.”

Best advice

“To get out of the character’s way. To gag and bound Taraji because she has nothing to do with the character.”

Inspiration

“The fact that art creates life and the power of that.”

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